Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Garden sparkles after unexpected rain

Our summers are long, warm/hot, and  dry—emphasis on the latter. We have a textbook Mediterranean climate so we typically don't get any rain between May and October. According to the UC Davis Weather & Climate site, the last time it had rained was on May 27 (a whopping 0.07").

Imagine my surprise and excitement when yesterday we not only woke up to cloudy skies but soon smelled petrichor—that incomparable scent of rain on dry asphalt and parched soil. No, it didn't last long or amounted to much (0.06"), but it was an unexpected gift and therefore precious.

I was thrilled for myself, but equally so for our plants. Beyond a much needed drink, they also needed a good washing off after months of dust. As the “rain” was letting up, I went outside and took pictures to document this unexpected boon.

×Mangave ‘Purple People Eater’

Friday, September 13, 2019

David Feix's tropical jungle in Berkeley

Berkeley is only 60 miles from Davis, but it might as well be a different planet. In the summer, people in Davis wear as little as they can get away with because it's 100°F outside; in Berkeley, they don wool sweaters and wrap scarves around their necks because it's a chilly 65°F. OK, that's a bit of an exaggeration, but you get the idea. A mid-summer daytrip to San Francisco Bay is always a welcome escape, especially when plants are involved. Even better: an organized event that makes the trip legit.

In late July, I had the opportunity to visit several Berkeley-area gardens as part of the San Francisco Bromeliad Society's East Bay Garden Tour. The first stop was the garden of well-known landscape designer David Feix. David started his professional career as a landscape architect but soon switched to landscape design because his primary interest was creating plant-focused gardens instead of projects that prioritize the hardscape. A plant geek to the core, he has been a major influencer in the Bay Area landscape design and gardening community, introducing plants from all over the world in his gardens.

I've been following David for years on social media channels, but I'd never actually met him in person. That's why I was excited to finally see his own personal space. Knowing that David's garden designs center on bromeliads, succulents, subtropicals and Mediterranean-climate plants, I had a pretty good idea what to expect. However, I was still surprised by the sheet density of plants both in his front and back garden—and the almost shocking greenness. Yes, this is Berkeley with its Goldilocks climate (mild and frost-free winters, warm but not hot summers), but David's garden is extraordinarily lush even for Berkeley.

Front garden

The day of my visit was sunny, resulting in very contrasty conditions and making photography difficult. The fact that there were 40+ other people in the garden at the same time didn't make things easier. I'm hoping that I'll have a chance to visit again on an overcast day, and with fewer people around, but for now here are my photographic impressions of David's private sanctuary. 

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Going vertical: the next frontier

Space was the final frontier for the starship Enterprise. My aim is not quite as lofty, although my eyes are directed toward space. I'm beginning to moving up: quite literally up, off the ground. It's the only way to go since I'm running out of horizonal space on terra firma.

With four California bay trees in the backyard, there are plenty of places for hanging planters. Finding one I like was the hardest part. Macramé lovers have plenty to choose from (the 1970s are destined to haunt us forever), the rest of us not so much. I finally stumbled on something that spoke to me: rusty metal, a decent size, and reasonably affordable. Best of all: a large frame that doesn't interfere with the plants as much as the rope or wires of a traditional hanging planter would.

Here's the project in three photos: two planters attached to two different bay trees.


Big thanks to my wife for her creative thinking and her help installing these planters.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

Plant-nerd technology that works: Huntington digital plant map

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I recently attended the 2019 Succulent Symposium at the Huntington in San Marino, CA. In contrast to my experience at similar events, every single presentation kept my attention, and I learned a great deal about plants with which I only had a passing familiarity or knew nothing about. 

I also found out a few things about the Huntington, including ambitious plans for the Chinese Garden and a new outdoor event area. But nothing surprised me more than finding out that the Huntington has been digitally mapping the plants in its collections and making the results available to, well, anybody and everybody. 

I suspect I might be the last one to hear about this, but in case I'm not, here's what I've gathered: As they walk the gardens, employees use portable devices (maybe simply their smartphone?) to send plant location data to the Huntington's online plant database. From http://plants.gardentour.net, you and I and the rest of the world has access to all the plants that have been captured so far. How cool is that?

Unfortunately, I didn't have this information when I walked through the Desert Garden the day before the Succulent Symposium, but I tried it out at home. Here's what the experience is like:

This is what you see when you get to http://plants.gardentour.net

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Huntington Desert Garden: Old World eye candy

In my previous post I treated you to some eye candy from the New World section of the Huntington's Desert Garden. I could follow it up with something completely unrelated but that wouldn't be couth. So I'm going to be completely predictable and continue with eye candy from the Old World.

I had intended to take more photos than I ultimately did, but as temperatures were climbing into the 90s and the 7+ hours on the road were beginning to catch up with me, I ended up bowing out in mid-afternoon to retreat to the air-conditioned coolness of my motel room. Sometimes creature comforts take precedence over plant-related pursuits.

Crown of thorns (Euphorbia millii)

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Huntington Desert Garden: New World eye candy

I just got back from yet another whirlwind trip to the Huntington. On Saturday, I attended the 36th Succulent Symposium, an annual tradition since 1983. The day was packed with presentations on a wide variety of topics, including terrestrial bromeliads (Andy Siekkinen), cacti from the West Indies (Alberto Areces-Mallea) and Peru (Paul Hoxey), as well as the mutually beneficial cooperation between private collectors and botanical gardens (Ron Kaufmann). Karen Zimmerman, the Huntington's succulent propagator, gave us a virtual tour of the treasures in the off-limits collection greenhouses. In addition, there was a silent auction and, at the end of the day, the opportunity to shop in the Huntington's succulent nursery. And let's not forget breakfast and lunch—food not only keeps people's stomachs from growling, it also makes them more attentive and more generous.

If you're interested, the 2020 Succulent Symposium is tentatively scheduled for Saturday, September 5 (Labor Day weekend).


I gave myself an extra day because I wanted to spend some time at the Huntington and the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden nearby. Unfortunately, it was so hot in the afternoon that I retreated to my motel room earlier than I'd expected. I wish that in the summer months both the Huntington and the LA Arboretum let visitors in early—I would have loved walking around in the cool of the early morning. As it is, the Huntington doesn't open until 10:00, the LA Arboretum at 9:00.

Heat or not, the Desert Garden at the Huntington is a truly spectacular place. Even though words and images can't replace the immersive experience of a personal visit, I'm hoping that the magic of the Desert Garden has rubbed off a little on the photos in this post.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Prickly pictures from the U.S. Library of Congress

Last week, somewhere on the internet, I stumbled on a black-and-white photo of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo standing next to an enormous agave. The image was striking—beautifully composed and hauntingly expressive. Is Frida saying hello? Or goodbye? Is she sad? Or just pensive? The fact that there's a gigantic Agave salmiana in the frame makes the picture even more memorable, at least for me.

Toni Frissell: Frida Kahlo (Señora Diego Rivera) standing next to an agave plant, during a photo shoot for Vogue magazine, “Señoras of Mexico”, 1937
Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Toni Frissell Collection, LC-F9-01-3707-25 -8

What caught my attention beyond the image itself was the credit line: “Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.” A quick Google search led me to the Prints and Photographs Online Catalog (PPOC), which contains about 1.2 million digitized images, many in the public domain. 

I ran two searches, for “agave” and for “cactus,” and found not only Frida Kahlo's agave images but also a bunch of others that caught my eye for one reason or another. Here's a sampling of what I discovered.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Rusty can as succulent planter: upcycling gone right—or wrong?

It's no secret I like the look of rusted metal in the garden. Weathering steel (Corten) planters, however, are not cheap. In the spring I converted a few old chimney flue liners into faux metal planters using oxidizing iron paint; the result surprised even me.

In my ongoing quest to find low- or no-cost metal accents, I've decided to try something I've avoided so far: use a rusty tin can:

Hechtia epygina

What do you think?

The first time I looked at the final product from a few feet away, I wasn't sure whether I liked it or not.

Friday, August 23, 2019

Sloping succulents and upcycled metal: personal garden of Bay Area landscape designer Mathew McGrath

I love visiting private gardens. They give me an opportunity to learn from what others have created—to be inspired or, conversely, find out what I don't like. If I ever get to create my own dream garden, it will build on everything I've seen over the years.

While I'm eager to discover new things and willing to look closer even at stuff that initially leaves me cold, I virtually never come home thinking, wow, there's nothing I would change in this garden. I'm sure most of us are that way, gravitating naturally towards a pick-and-choose approach. After all, every one of us is unique, so what are the odds we fully embrace what somebody else has done?

Imagine my surprise last Saturday when just that happened. It's all because of this guy:

Mathew McGrath, Farallon Gardens

This is landscape designer Mathew McGrath, the creative mind behind Farallon Gardens, according to their website “one of the leading design and maintenance firms now serving the greater Bay Area.”

Mat and I had been emailing back and forth for a good while, and I finally had the chance to visit him at home in the Berkeley Hills.

Friday, August 16, 2019

Piece of Eden: a plant paradise in Southern California

Everybody deserves their own slice of paradise, wherever and whatever it may be. That's why visiting a fellow gardener who has found theirs is such a treat for me.

A few weeks ago when I was in Southern California for my daughter's university orientation I had the pleasure of hanging out with Hoover Bo, the creative mind behind one my favorite gardening blogs, the aptly named Piece of Eden. Yes, Hoover Boo has created her own paradise, a peaceful sanctuary that seems to exist apart from the world outside.

I first visited Piece of Eden in December 2017 and wrote a two-part post about it (1 | 2). Needless to say the garden looks different in the summer—other plants are in bloom, for one thing. But even without a single flower, Piece of Eden would be dazzling because of the enormous variety of shapes and textures.

Hoover Boo gardens on a ½ acre in Southern California that combines level areas with slopes, both in the front and the back of the property. For someone like me who has always lived in level places any kind of elevation change is a wondrous thing. I'm sure the reality isn't quite as glamorous, but Hoover Boo and her husband, Beloved, have solved their terrain challenges brilliantly.

Starting out, here is the wider view of the immediate neighborhood. Hoover's front yard is on the left; the house you see is their next-door neighbor. And check out the hills in the distance: all of that is undeveloped land protected within the borders of a regional park. Sights like that are becoming rare in the most densely populated part of California.

The massive inflorescence of a flowering Agave marmorata is a beacon that is impossible to miss